Reject: 1 Introduction

Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848–1884), The Annunciation to the Shepherds (1875), oil on canvas, 147.9 x 115.2 cm, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Wikimedia Commons.

During the eighteenth century, European painting underwent major change in the way that it was viewed, criticised and sold. Instead of relying on a system of patronage, and a direct relationship with the person paying for their work, artists started exhibiting their paintings to a wider public in events organised by their own academies: in Paris and other cities of continental Europe, Salons; in Britain at exhibitions run by the Royal Academy and other professional societies.

Paintings were assessed by a jury composed primarily of senior members of that academy, who decided whether to accept each work for what would be ambiguously termed a public hanging, or rejected. In this new series I’m going to look in detail at some of the paintings rejected by juries, which since then have risen to fame: rejects which have proved on many occasions that the judgement of those juries hasn’t stood the test of time.

In this introduction, I show seven examples of rejects which I’m sure we can all agree proved to be terrible mistakes on the part of those juries.

Gustave Courbet, The Painter's Studio: a Real Allegory of a Seven Year Phase in my Artistic (and Moral) Life (1855), oil on canvas, 361 x 598 cm, Musée d'Orsay, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.
Gustave Courbet (1819–1877), The Painter’s Studio: a Real Allegory of a Seven Year Phase in my Artistic (and Moral) Life (1855), oil on canvas, 361 x 598 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

By 1855, Gustave Courbet was already well-established as an innovator, whose huge painting of A Burial at Ornans (1849-50) had brought instant fame at the Paris Salon of 1850-51. For the Exposition Universelle to be held in Paris in 1855, he submitted a total of fourteen works, including A Burial at Ornans and the newly-completed Painter’s Studio (1855) above.

The latter two, being very large, were rejected along with another, so Courbet withdrew from the Exposition altogether and set up his own gallery of paintings next door. The Painter’s Studio remains one of the great enigmas of nineteenth century art, with various interpretations. Its rejection was a profound misjudgement on the part of the jury, who clearly hadn’t considered the artist’s reaction.

Just a few years later, it was the jury of the Salon itself which misread how art was changing.

Édouard Manet (1832-1883), Luncheon on the Grass (1863), oil on canvas, 208 × 264.5 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Édouard Manet’s famous painting Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (Luncheon on the Grass) was rejected by the jury for the 1863 Paris Salon. Excuses offered by critics dodged the central issue that it could be read as a depiction of prostitution, in placing a non-classical nude woman between two clothed men. This was judged an indecency, an obscenity. Added to that is the unnerving gaze of the woman at the viewer.

That year, the Salon jury rejected two-thirds of the paintings submitted, including those of Courbet, Pissarro and Jongkind. There was outcry, and the Emperor Napoleon III decreed that paintings which were rejected could be exhibited in a special salon, the Salon des Refusés. Although this exposed them to public ridicule, it also drew attention to the changes which were taking place in art.

Two years later, the Salon accepted Manet’s celebrated painting Olympia (1863), which caused uproar. Manet had succeeded in changing the Salon and art.

By coincidence, 1863 was also the year in which the Royal Academy made its great mistake with one of the most important British landscape paintings after the death of JMW Turner.

Florence from Bellosguardo 1863 by John Brett 1831-1902
John Brett (1831–1902), Florence from Bellosguardo (1863), oil on canvas, 60 x 101.3 cm, The Tate Gallery (Presented by Thomas Stainton in memory of Charles and Lavinia Handley-Read 1972), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

John Brett was another artist who had already made his mark, and maintained a close relationship with the highly influential critic John Ruskin. He went to extraordinary lengths to paint this breathtaking view of the city of Florence from Bellosguardo. He started work in front of the motif in January 1863, using a telescope to capture every fine detail with precision. Yet when he submitted it to the Royal Academy later that year, it was rejected.

Thankfully for Brett, the painting was purchased in May 1863 by the National Gallery, and he was acclaimed in the press as ‘head of the Pre-Raphaelite landscape school’, although by that time he was probably the last of its practitioners. Given the reaction of the jury in this case, perhaps it’s not surprising that there were few others who attempted to paint landscapes in Pre-Raphaelite style.

The year after the First Impressionist Exhibition, it was the turn of the Paris Salon to make another very bad decision.

Gustave Caillebotte, The Floor Scrapers (Parquet Planers) (1875), oil on canvas, 102 x 146.5 cm, Musée d'Orsay, Paris. WikiArt.
Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894), The Floor Scrapers (Parquet Planers) (1875), oil on canvas, 102 x 146.5 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. WikiArt.

Gustave Caillebotte’s The Floor Scrapers (1875) was fairly straight by comparison with contemporary landscape paintings by other French Impressionists. At a time when ‘social realist’ paintings of rural poverty were considered wholly acceptable, it now seems bizarre that any jury could have considered this painting vulgar for showing three working men preparing the floor of the artist’s studio. Caillebotte exhibited it at the next Impressionist Exhbition the following year, and it’s now one of the many masterpieces in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

Obscenity seems to be one of the most common reasons for the rejection of what turn out to be major paintings, and this was the case for Ferdinand Hodler in 1891.

Ferdinand Hodler (1853–1918), The Night (1889-90), oil on canvas, 116.5 × 299 cm, Kunstmuseum Bern, Bern, Switzerland. Wikimedia Commons.

It’s hard today to see what could possibly have been obscene or even offensive in Hodler’s masterpiece The Night, which he painted in 1889-90 and submitted to the Salon in 1891. When it was rejected on the grounds of obscenity, Hodler followed Courbet’s example, and showed it in a separate building nearby, causing quite a scandal. The artist also submitted it to the Salon in Paris, where it received praise from Pierre Puvis de Chavannes and the sculptor Auguste Rodin. It was exhibited again at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900, again to acclaim.

For many artists, rejection is part of life, a running sore rather than a major illness. Sometimes, particularly early in their career, it forces an artist to change course.

Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848–1884), The Annunciation to the Shepherds (1875), oil on canvas, 147.9 x 115.2 cm, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Wikimedia Commons.

Jules Bastien-Lepage entered the contest for the prestigious Prix de Rome in 1875, and by public reaction would have received the award. However, the jury rejected his painting on a trumped-up technicality. His submission for the final was The Annunciation to the Shepherds (1875), shown above. This subject was not of his choosing, but prescribed as ‘the annunciation of the nativity of Christ by the angel to the shepherds of Bethlehem’, as in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 2, verses 8-15.

If there’s one painting which epitomises Bastien-Lepage’s approach, as a painted manifesto, it is this. Painted with exceptional skill, it builds on tradition rather than discarding it. Its strength is in its compromise between the gilding and Renaissance appearance of the angel, the rural realism of the shepherds who have come from Millet rather than Bethlehem, and the wonderfully controlled looseness and gesture of the darkened landscape.

The story may be a simple one, but Bastien-Lepage wastes not a brushstroke in its telling, in the almost averted facial expressions, the arms frozen in surprise, hands which have just been tending sheep, even their bare and filthy feet.

The jury of the Prix de Rome attempted to avert outcry by awarding Bastien-Lepage a consolation prize, but it was too late: the damage had been done. That damage stopped him from pursuing an Academic future, and for the good of art, he retreated to his rural village, and the pursuit of truth in his painting.

My final example of a rejection wasn’t the decision of a jury, but the board of the National Museum in Stockholm, Sweden. Towards the end of his career and life, the great Swedish painter Carl Larsson was commissioned to produce a suite of murals for the walls of the central staircase in the National Museum. These were to depict motifs from Swedish history, and he completed the first in 1896. The artist intended the last to be his swan song, and took its theme from the mythical sagas of the Icelandic writer Snorri Sturluson, with additional material from Adam of Bremen.

Carl Larsson (1853–1919), Midvinterblot (Midwinter’s Sacrifice) (1914-15), oil on canvas, 640 x 1360 cm, Nationalmuseum Stockholm. Wikimedia Commons.

It shows a dramatic scene which doesn’t have any parallel in official Swedish history, of the sacrifice of the mythical King Domalde. According to Snorri Sturluson, there had been many years of crop failures, and the gods had demanded pagan sacrifice to appease them and ease the suffering of the people.

This attracted harsh criticism from the museum board, on Larsson’s choice of subject and its presentation. It was felt to be unreal, unbelievable, and irrelevant for modern Swedish people. While the museum board accepted the painting, it was on condition that the artist made changes, in particular to remove its ritual killing scene.

Larsson refused to accept these changes, and resigned from the task in 1914. Later that year he changed his mind and resumed work, completing a life study for the figure of the king, and preparing another study. Debate continued in the newspapers, and involved government ministers. More recently it has been proposed that the underlying problem with the painting was that it failed to meet the modernist ideals of Sweden in the early twentieth century.

Larsson completed the massive painting, and it was exhibited where it was intended to go in June 1915, before being finally rejected and removed. The artist died in 1919, just after the end of the war, and remained bitter about the whole matter. His painting was shown again at the National Museum between 1925-1933, but once again removed.

In 1983-4, it was exhibited in the Museum of National Antiquities. It was then offered for purchase by the National Museum, which again declined, and the Museum of National Antiquities was unable to pay the asking price for it. It was sold to a private collector in Japan in 1987, from auction at Sotheby’s, only to be loaned back for the National Museum’s bicentennial celebrations in 1992. Since then it has remained there, at first on loan, but in 1997 it was finally purchased by the museum and installed where it had originally been intended.

I hope you will enjoy this series, in which painters pit themselves against their judges and juries, with history as the ultimate arbiter.